INDIANAPOLIS — John Beilein and Rick Pitino are old friends. They go way back and they’ve got more than just mutual coaching respect for each other. But Beilein has suffered two of his toughest defeats at the hands of Pitino and the Louisville Cardinals.
Beilein got one back on Sunday.
Michigan trailed by 8 points at halftime but rallied back for a 73-69 win in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The win won’t replace a loss in the Elite Eight. It certainly doesn’t turn a loss in the national title game into a victory. But it does send the Wolverines on to the Sweet 16 as a No. 7 seed and ends 2-seed Louisville’s dream of another run to the Final Four.
“I’m so proud of these guys. The end of the first half, I thought was a defining moment for our team in this particular game,” Beilein said. “We could have approached that differently. We were coming back, shot clock’s down, they nail a 3. I think they came back down again, nailed another 3. Then all a sudden, we got a foul, and they get 2 more. We’re down 8 at half.
“A team that isn’t as experienced, that doesn’t have the poise we have, would come back and try to win it all right away. We won every 4-minute period until we got ahead in the game. And just by playing in those little increments made a big difference.”
Beilein was just 1-3 against Pitino and Louisville previously. His West Virginia team had a 19-point lead against Louisville in that 2005 West Region final only to see the Cardinals win the game, 93-85, in overtime. Michigan led Louisville by 12 points in the first half of their 2013 national championship game, but the Cardinals again rallied and won 82-76.
This time, it was Beilein’s team that came from behind for the win.
“After one timeout, we just said that we needed to chip away inch by inch,” junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman said. “We went on a run and tied it. I think that was a testament to our team and how close we are.”
Michigan’s largest deficit was 9 points, 47-38, with 14:46 left to play in the second half. A pair of free throws by Abdur-Rahkman tied it, 51-51, and then he put back a missed layup by Derrick Walton Jr. to put Michigan in front, 53-51, with 8:54 left. Michigan hadn’t led since D.J. Wilson scored the first basket of the game.
Wilson closed out the victory by hitting all 4 of his free throw attempts in the final 17 seconds.
Michigan is now in the Sweet 16 for the first time since reaching the Elite Eight in 2014. The Wolverines (26-11) have won 12 of their last 14 games and seven in a row.
“As you get into the NCAA Tournament and you’re watching, those are your friends,” Beilein, 64, said. “Guys like Jay Wright, who won last year (with Villanova), those are guys we started coaching in the Big East together. They’re winning national championships, why can’t we do that? Rick (Pitino) and I started coaching the same time. John Calipari (Kentucky) the same. They’re doing it. Why not? Why not us?
“It’s not gravy. We’re doing everything to win this whole thing. I’m no spring chicken. You know you get bad calls, you get injuries, you get things that happen. We’re only four games away from winning the whole thing. We were only four games away from winning the Big Ten championship. We have to have that belief in ourselves that we can play with a lot of people.”